Monday, December 1, 2008

How One Infantry Lieutenat-Colonel Disgraced Himself and His Country


An Extract from

The Hippie Lieutenant

Part One: Humping with the Grunts

Written by:

Anthony St. John

Casella Postale 38 50041 CALENZANO FI Italia

November, 1967. On the Cambodian-Laotian borders. As much as it was the United States Army’s intention to bomb to smithereens and defoliate the leaves away of the Vietnamese countryside with the excuse of clearing large segments of land so that the country could be rid of those “commie gook bastards” from the north of Vietnam, too much of the beauty of what was once Indo-China remained to remind one that this potential breadbasket of the world or offshore goldmine of petroleum deposits—which of the two suited one’s fancy?—was in fact a luscious green paradise of richly luxurious mountains, valleys, coastlines, rivers, forests and hamlets.

In the mosquito-infested Central Highlands, adjacent to Cambodia and Laos, a mountain range of green splendor greeted the sightseer in the air and on the ground. The views were often breathtakingly seductive, and the serenity of the area made for a pleasant break from army bases, fire bases, forts, base camps, terminals and compounds.
As one trekked through the “boonies” there was the overpowering feeling that vacation time had come round once again. The pleasantries of the beautiful woodlands instilled in one a distinct presentiment of peacefulness. Butterflies—an enormous range of colors characterizing their diverse species—crowded pathways hacked away by machete-bearing pointmen. Birds chirped away in treetops and reminded one of agreeable moments had in one’s youth during springtime strolls through shaded timberlands with the loved one—hand in hand. There was that matchless sound of bacon and eggs—traded, if not robbed, from local Montagnard villagers—crackling on a frying pan over an early-morning fire, the aroma scenting its way through trees and bushes into two-man hootches where rested soldiers recharged by a ten-hour sleep on an army-issue gray air mattress turned over to reach for the first butt of the day and stalled, in a lazy, contented way, the beginning of a day’s march up the side of a comely mountain.

Canteens were filled with fresh, diseased-free water from tributaries which had directed the cool refreshment for miles over rocks and through vegetation effecting Nature’s own purifying process and ridding one of the need to plunk iodine tablets into canteens and then, to kill the taste, slide in cherry-flavored KOOL-AID granules, pre-sweetened, P-L-E-A-S-E!!! from the funneled edges of those small, pre-packed envelopes. Canteen cups were used to boil hot water for shaving, and steel-potted helmets served as washbasins into which soapy razor blades were dunked to make ready the next scrape to the chin.

C-ration cans were heated over small blue pellet heating tabs—yells going up in quest of an extra can of peaches, or “Who likes ham and lima beans? (no one), I’ll trade you for a spiced beef.” When breakfast was completed, packs—some weighing eighty pounds with mortar rounds, M-60 ammo belts, and prick-9 radio batteries busting a man’s back—were hoisted to fit a comfortable position, rifles were grabbed, helmets were arranged at their most comfortable tilt, and pistol belts with loaded canteens and ammo pouches were clicked into place. The “humping” was begun.

One looked up to the verdant mountain and was discouraged by its imposing height. The moans and groans once expelled, the men went about their hiking first considering it to be a chore, then looking to what good could come from it. A bamboo pit viper or two wiggled and glided on the roots of a huge tree. Every month or so, a python to catch and wrestle with in patches of grass—machete-bearing soldiers on guard to prevent strangulations. Wild water buffalo were avoided altogether, when not shot, because they were too vicious and unpredictable in their behavior. No one appreciated the trouble leeches brought, and in certain areas, especially where the soil was unusually rich and moist and ensconced from adequate air circulation by ravines, heavy underbrush or land depressions, the leeches seemed to cultivate exceedingly well requiring us to douse our boots with mosquito repellent to keep them from crawling up our legs into our crotches.

It was gratifying to walk into a friendly village without going in to destroy it and find villagers hard at work building homes or preparing meals for their families. And if the inhabitants were not frightened by our presence—all the better. G. I.’s teased and playacted with the tribe. Gifts might be exchanged. C-rations might be tossed to scrounging kids begging for food. A charred- wood smell was diffused throughout the village. Bare-breasted women, nipples chunky and firm, cradled children in their arms possessing them maternally and offering protection to them from the unstableness of an army which offered them food by day but at night might bomb them to bits and pieces. There was no promise of peace and quiet for these people and their country set in political turmoil for decades. The village now became a memory to the soldier’s past.

The company pushed on farther to a night position where foxholes might be dug and artillery defensive concentrations were certain to kindle small brush fires and intimidate neighboring villagers. The security of the night perimeter was much like the fetal posture. The unit drew itself into itself and felt safe when it covered its head and body with the security blanket of a circular encampment, with guards watching over it through the night, with radio contact for any emergency, with men well-armed and fortified with a filling dinner, with an air force at their beck and call, with helicopter gunships to whip in and out to sting an attacking enemy.
The moon lit the night. Radios blared, portable record players played popular music. Chats abounded within the boundary of the secured area. Chinese communist disc-jockeys beamed romantic soul music, but G. I.’s ignored their political messages happy to hear familiar tunes from back home. Chilled winds blew in the later part of the day and early part of the evening, and it was cozy to squat into one’s hootch constructed of two rain ponchos and there position oneself in the center of the blown-up air mattress—its rubber aroma floating up to be whiffed at throughout the night. The body was tired, aching. Yet, it was firm, resilient from the suffering it was being put through. It did not take long to fall asleep. One might go to catch Z’s earlier than usual hoping that the hootchmate one was assigned to would not enter during an ecstatic masturbation taken under a poncho liner.

There were other comforts. A good book; a re-read of the letters from home; the latest issue of Playboy to escape from reality; a good cigar; the knowledge that the M-16 had been cleaned earlier that day; and, dry, clean socks.

At night, when the noise of one hundred and twenty men abated, one set off to sleep listening to the sounds of the jungle: its animals, its trees swishing in the wind, its own powerful presence occasionally disturbed by the clock-clocking of a Huey or the explosion of an harassment and interdiction artillery round sounding off in the distance with a tremendous pounding to the ground. Nature, in its beauty and splendor, was too strong even for the United States’ Army which, while despoiling and B-52-bombing It, could not take away the time which would come to replenish It in all Its green brilliance and vitality.

Always a strict creature, Nature was even severer in Vietnam. For all the punishment it had inflicted upon it, it parcelled out its own. Nature knew it would survive, yet it yielded high malarious temperatures. It slapped down villagers and soldiers with tuberculosis, cholera and typhus. Its billowy, dark clouds—bulging their way through the skies—dropped oceans of rain on roads muddying them, on bodies diseasing them, on fighter bombers grounding them. When the clouds full of rain scattered at the end of their season, the hot sun came to parch throats and cake roads to a powdery dust which blew in the faces of men and clogged the oil-smooth-running machinery of the world’s most powerful army.

The Sun to the east, the Sun to the west. It was magnificent in the morning warming the body after a chilled sleep. At dusk, it set behind gorgeous mountains, its flare lighting up the skies in posh hues of red, orange, blue white and purple. Cirrus, cirrostratus, cirrocumulus and altostratus clouds beamed dazzling colors bounced off them by that sinking luminous celestial body around which the Earth and other planets revolve, from which they receive heat and light, which has a mean distance from Earth of 93,000,000 miles, a linear diameter of 864,000 miles, a mass 332,000 times grander than Earth, and a mean density about one-fourth that of Earth.

I fantasized a champagne breakfast at sunrise in St. Augustine on Florida’s east coast, and a seafood platter feast at sunset in Cedar Key on Florida’s west coast. The Vietnam experience would not always be with us, but the Sun would be. And what a gracious, friendly Sun! The company is drenched with gallons of monsoon rain when then, and only then, the Sun pops out to steam heat away soaking helmet camouflage covers, waterlogged fatigues, and sloshing wet boots—those boots Nancy Sinatra keeps reminding us, as if we did not know, were made for none other than walking!

The chill leaves the body when the heat rays of the Sun pierce their way through army-issued green santeen duds. The body becomes dry again. Sweat begins to seep through the fine pores and small openings of the body’s protective garments. The Colt Rifle Company’s famous—but overrated—M-16 is speckled with reddish brown rust particles which will be removed easily with tiny cloth patches sopped with cleaning oil, one each, for external use only.
The humping assumes a new, refreshed mood. Stomachs are beginning to growl from the extra duty imposed on the digestive system to keep the body pushing on through draughty rains and hot Sun. One must now seek shade from the midday Sun under whose torrid warmth lunch will be taken. The rucksack is tossed to the base of a tree, the helmet plunked down on the ground, the rifle put to the side close at hand, the pistol belt is unlatched, the canteen reached for with both hands in a caressing gesture and swigs are had from the olive drab plastic container which holds that precious liquid refreshment more pretentious than a good bottle of Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

A pleasant intermission comes to us. Within the inventory of the Universe there is a large stream one-hundred meters from our lunch break position, and our company commander has “tender-heartedly” given us permission to bathe and wash clothes in the shadiness of the spread of a richly-vegetated idyllic forest scene. The winsomeness of the area is incomparable. Trees and colourful shrubs abound. The current flows coolly and its sparkling, crystal-clear waters lower the body temperature and revive the mind to make it as translucent and alive as the colorless, glass-like surface of the charging brook. The spirit of the men becomes brisk. There is horseplay. There is fun. The only grim reminder of the war is the five naked guards who have been placed on duty to protect the splashing, frolicking infantrymen. Soap suds begin to dull the upper boundary of the stream as men scrub at socks and fatigue shirts and their very own bodies. More than a hundred nudes. There is little modesty, shame. The release from the oppressing load of the rucksack has encouraged all of us to forget our slavery and enjoy, as much as we can, this little grab at joy. There is no bitching when the call to regroup is made. The men want to savor this encounter with Nature for at least the rest of the day, and rather than fight or pick at their plight, they permit their disciplined bodies and minds to respond automatically—involuntarily—to the command of that army they disrespect and despise. The rucksack, harnessed to strong backs for the umpteenth time, feels lighter than was once imagined in the frigid waters of the river.

The men head out, in single file, in silent resolve. Whatever their thoughts are, they are private, intense. The men intertwine with Nature. They have taken comfort from Nature’s powerful ability to stand and endure. They look up to the blue and know that those fluffy white cottony nebulas will turn blackish gray by late afternoon and pour down huge droplets of water condensed from vapor in the boundless atmosphere which infiltrates the Vietnamese countryside, the hearts and minds of all men and women and even the United States’ Army. They look to the ground and sense the firmness of the Earth—its hardened exterior always waiting to take without recoil or echo the hammering of that steel-plated-in-the-sole jungle boot, two each, green-canvassed at their sides. Soldiers look to the right, to the left. There are only green trees and lush jungle bushes to catch the eye. The company has reached a level of Platonic Transcendentalism. They have superseded, for a short time, the yoke of their own inhibiting prejudices and the preconceived judgements of others, and in unity, the fellowship of infantry fight specialists have intuited the truth about their fellow man and have felt, while not intellectualising it, the value of virtuous conduct. Chained to their rocks as Prometheus, the “grunts” have begun to stop warring with their oppressors. They have taken the steps to understand and pity them. They have found hope in the possibility of a better order of Life, and they have sought, through the simplicity of Nature, to seek peace and good will among all men on Earth without recrimination and penalty.

Into this serene milieu is plopped the battalion’s number one beer delivery man who is making his weekly rounds around the battalion’s area of operations. The company knows the clock-clocking helicopter is the command and control Huey of Light Bird Colonel, on the Full Bird Promotion List, Husky because it is clean, spirals from a three-thousand-foot height in order to avoid small arms fire, and it has been some time since our unit’s shining bright, spit-shined-booted, with-fatigues-starched commander has been out to the twigs for a visit. The touching Shelleyan slumber of the “grunts” has been dissipated into the atmosphere—perhaps forever—by this hideous intrusion.

The company guesses at what its battalion’s chief baffoon has up his olive drab sleeves for tricks and treats this fine sweltry day, and there is immeasurable glee immediately when, to everyone’s delight, as Husky disembarks from his landed Huey and charges forward to greet his company commander and infantry puppets, he trips over a tree stump, scuffs his mirrored boots, and is caught from a fall to the ground—not smooth and boarded as is his comfy Tactical Operations Center—by his ass-kissing, permanently-fixed-to-his-left-side battalion executive officer. Husky is amazed with himself and vents his anger at once at his Bravo Company commanding officer explaining to him that his men should have cleared away the Landing Zone more carefully—what, captain, would have happened if a Combat Assault was to have been executed on that L.Z. and an artillery forward observer had seriously injured himself on that tree stump incapacitating his ability to bring smoke and pee on an attacking enemy? To wit, the company commander: “I am sorry, sir, for that indiscretion. I can assure you, sir, there will be no reoccurrence of it in the future.”
“Very well, captain. Report!”

Husky has slipped back to the very reason he came to the field. The company commander snaps to, readies himself to present his report, and whips a flashy salute on Husky. The comedy continues.

“Captain, I have repeatedly told you, and every other god-damned company commander in this outfit, that I do not want to be made conspicuous in the field by having officers and enlisted men salute me. I don’t want to be a target for Charlie any more than I have to be. Do you understand, you god-damned little idiot?”
“Yes, sir! That indiscretion will never reoccur in the future.”

There are giggles and gawkish looks throughout the company area. Everyone knows the Vietcong and the Northvietnamese Army have been monitoring Husky’s inept operations for months and have conspired to let Husky live until he is promoted to Army Chief of Staff—who needs friends with enemies like this.

“Proceed with your report, captain.”
“Sir, the enemy situation is complicated and peculiar. We have out-maneuvered and outflanked the aggressors with your stylised…”
“Captain, I don’t want to hear your highfalutin excuses for not giving me bodies,” Husky shrills aloud in the woods for all within a thousand meters to hear.
“Sir, the indiscretion will never occur in the future.”
“Captain, are you some kind of a god-damned idiot? Stop that indiscretion shit now!”
“Sir, the indis…Yeeees, SSSSSSiiiiiirrrrrr!”
“Captain, to date your unit is deficient. You have the highest foot-wound (“The Million-Dollar Wound”) casualty rate in the whole god-damned army, you haven’t had a body for me in four weeks, and you are slow getting to your positions. What do you have to say for yourself?”

“I’ll tell you what you have to say for yourself, captain. You have to say that you are a complete idiot. You have to say you are not doing your job. You have to say that your next efficiency report is going to look mighty shitty if you don’t shape up soon!”
“Don’t sir me. I want action, I want bodies ! Go to it, my man.”
“Yes, sir!”
“I want to talk with your men.”

The company commander cowtows and pays homage and droops his body and bends hither and tither to lead the way for Husky to his men who are assembled in small groups in the distance talking about their recent spiritualistic reunion with Nature. Husky comes upon the men—both arms filled with cold beer cans.

“Got something for you “gook” killers! Feast your eyes on these cold cans of suds, boys. I’m the only battalion commander in Vietnam willing to break regulations for his men and bring them ice-cold suds to the field.”

Husky’s favorable opinion of himself falls on deaf ears. The men want the suds.

“What do you think about that, private?”

Husky has happed upon California Dreamer, the unit’s philosopher of Nature.

“Sir, have you ever thought about Nature and what a satisfying experience it is to walk among the trees and mountains and streams?”

Husky’s eyes bulge with astonishment. He has been taken unawares.

“I-I, yes I have, son.”

Husky thinks he is dealing with a nut case.

“Were you inspired, colonel?”
“I guess I was, I…son, we are here to fight a war. I don’t see what Nature has to do with that.”
“I do, sir.”
“You do?”
“Son…Major, take this man to my C&C ship and wait for me there.”

Husky does not want to enter into a philosophical debate, nor does he wish to have his men’s minds poisoned with stuff he knows might turn out to be commie or anti-army.

“Men, I wish to make a point or two very clear to you.”

Husky is gearing up for an army Sermon on the
Mount, but his mind is abruptly torn between risking the use of California Dreamer as an example of what not to think in Vietnam—thereby alienating his men—or proceeding to follow through on his hip-shooting hunch that he can make interesting hay out of the situation and make an example of the philosopher of Nature who obviously challenged his ideas, who obviously challenged his authority. Naturally, Husky shot from the hip—his way of doing everything. The moral homily continued.

“The United States’ Army is the toughest, best-equipped army in the world. It is not a candy-assed outfit, and it is not a pack of Boy Scouts on its way to an overnight cookout.”

He points to the hills of Cambodia and Laos.

“In those hills are commies. God-damned little fucking slanty-eyed bastard commies. And they are out to kill your fucking asses, boys. They are out to subjugate and subterfuge the American system of democracy. They are out to take your beer from you….”

Husky is rolling along. The class clown has become the class valedictorian.

“…They are out to, god-damn those bastards, seduce and abuse your mothers, wives and girlfriends. The commies are smart little fuckers. Don’t underestimate them. They are willing to walk the long mile to get their way, and they will take all the time they need to do it. They are waiting in those hills. They are waiting for you to drop your guard, to leave yourself open for that one-two, under-the-belt punch. They want to box you into a corner. Men, Husky is here to prove to them otherwise. And the way we will show them gook bastards that we will not stand for their commie shit is the way your old man Husky is going to show you how to fight this war. But, men, I can’t do it without you. I can’t do it when you let your guard down. If you spend your day looking at trees and pretty flowers and not looking for Charlie, you are doing yourself a disservice, you are doing your nation a disservice, you are doing Husky a disservice. For God’s sake, boys, watch out for those commie bastards. Don’t let them catch you with your pants down. Be on your toes. Keep your rifles clean, walk five meters apart, search the areas you are passing through, take your malaria pills, and for God’s sake, boys, stop shooting yourselves in the god-damned feet! I have an incentive for you. For every gook or AK-47 a Bravo Company grunt brings me, there are two quart bottles of Seagrams-7 waiting back in Bravo Charlie. Bring me bodies. Husky wants bodies, men. I need a high body count. I want to keep those god-damned commies from infiltrating into our country—the home of the free, the home of the brave. Go get ‘em, boys!!!”

Husky’s moral discourse made little impression on the men. There were mumblings in the crowd mostly over the whisky bribe.

“Let me hear it, gook killers!”

The “grunts’” minds reminisced to happier (?) days at Fort Benning, Georgia and their instructors’ commands to scream out a vociferous chain of crescendoing “KILL, KILL, KILL, KILL, KILL, KILL, KILL, KILL, KILL, KILL!” Their response to Husky’s request was made with fizzling “kills,” and Husky had to encourage them with his own sparked, enthusiastic “kill.”

“Give me ‘KILLS,’ gook killers!!!”

“Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill.”

They came in increased pitch and quality. Not Fort Benning perfect, but loud enough to satisfy Husky.

Husky turned, muttered something to his executive officer who had returned to hear the remonstrance, and then they both walked back to Husky’s C&C ship where the Spreader of the Word met California Dreamer and told him he was being sent to the division’s psychiatric unit for observation.

* * *

Written in

Caracas, Venezuela


Anthony St. John

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